By Brenda Flanagan
It’s not 2,000 kids chanting on city hall steps, but Principal Sharnee Brown’s letter makes its own forceful protest — stating she “…will not sit idly by and witness the neglect of Central High School without trying desperately to get the district to hear my concerns … about the overwhelming influx of students with special needs…” even though “…there are no programs at Central to accommodate their needs…”
“She did the right thing. She wants all children to learn. So we do not want that school used as a dumping ground,” said Secondary Parent Council President, Essex County PTA Wilhelmina Holder.
“I think, gives her guts. I think, ‘Yes, Miss Brown.’,’” said parent advocate Carol Tagoe.
Parents and PTA members applaud Brown’s bold move. The principal’s letter calls Gov. Chris Christie appointee Cami Anderson’s One Newark enrollment policy “…a blatant attempt to create hardships in comprehensive schools, in order for them to fail.”
“And as a parent of a child with special needs, I feel that some of the children are not getting the right services that they need here at Central High School,” said Newark PTA President Shonda Lassiter.
She notes Central can accommodate only 25 tot 35 special needs kids per grade level but received 58 special ed freshmen in the last school year — 70 this school year — and is slated to get 80 in the fall. That means 29 percent of the freshman students will be special needs — that’s almost double the district’s percentage of 15 percent.
“I felt angry because I felt that the district is shortchanging the students in regards to the services that they need to get,” Tagoe said.
The district’s required to place special needs students in correct learning environments, but without proper staffing and programs it’s “…creating a major disservice to the students who will be improperly placed… Compliance is not just important. It is the law.”
“And by loading up the comprehensive schools with special needs population without support, it’s actually a crime. And also we’re looking at the fact that the charter schools are not taking their share as well,” Holder said.
Holder claims Newark’s other comprehensive high schools face similar spikes in their special needs populations next year — 38 percent of the Westside freshman class, 33 percent of Barringer’s. This while school principals district-wide tell PTA officials they’ve been ordered by Anderson’s office to slash their next year’s budget by $200,000 to $500,000. What — or who — gets cut?
“Now I have a special needs grandson and that was the first thing that went was his aide,” Holder said.
But a district spokeswoman says, several schools “…including Central High School, have more parents choosing them for the first time in recent history, and now, students with disabilities have a stronger chance of being assigned where they want. This increase in demand and enrollment is a sign the district is on the move and that the district has prioritized serving students with disabilities… and will continue to offer support, tools, and training to meet the needs of all of learners.”
Brown wouldn’t speak on camera, but her letter speaks volumes. And coming from a principal who spends her days in the trenches here, it carries significant weight.